Scott Fowler

Julius Peppers: An appreciation of an extraordinary career

Julius Peppers retired Friday, ending one of the most extraordinary careers in Carolina Panthers history.

Peppers will be remembered most for his freaky athletic talent — for 17 seasons, he was a marvel even among the marvels who populate every NFL roster. At 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, with the speed of a roadrunner and the strength of a grizzly, Peppers was both a future hall of famer and the sort of player opposing players would sidle up to during warmups, just to take a look up close.

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly did exactly that when he was a rookie and Carolina was playing Chicago in 2012. Peppers played for the Bears at the time, and Kuechly snuck up near him like a starry-eyed 10-year-old, then left without saying anything.

Peppers had that sort of effect on people, even among those who were as famous as he was.

“Probably the biggest human being I’ve seen in my life on the football field,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said of Peppers.

“I’m just happy I’m No. 89 and he’s No. 90, so I get to stand next to him in team pictures,” wide receiver Steve Smith told me once when the two were Panthers teammates.

Peppers generally had good timing, too, and that goes for this decision as well. He’s making it at the right time. Peppers turned 39 last month. And although his career lasted longer than 99 percent of NFL careers do and some team would have undoubtedly brought him to another NFL training camp this summer, it was time to go. No one wants or needs to see Julius Peppers be just another guy, including Julius Peppers himself.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers (90) is retiring from the NFL after 17 seasons, $165 million, 159.5 sacks and countless accolades. And we should all wish the best. David T. Foster III

No comeback

In 2018, Peppers had five sacks. That would be a respectable number for many, but for Peppers it was his lowest sack total since 2007.

Unlike one season before, when Peppers had made a triumphant return to Carolina and posted 11 sacks, tying for the team lead on a playoff squad, he no longer was regularly in the quarterback’s face. Last season, he became mortal.

Peppers made his retirement announcement on “The Players’ Tribune” and the Panthers’ team website, thanking the fans of all three teams he played for (10 seasons with Carolina, four with Chicago, three with Green Bay) and also assuring everyone he wouldn’t change his mind later.

Wrote Peppers for ‘The Players’ Tribune” website: “There won’t be no comeback. No sir. Once I’m out, I’m out.”

Peppers’ first love for basketball — he was named for Julius “Dr. J.” Erving. Those with fairly long memories remember that Peppers played on a Final Four team at North Carolina before he got to the Super Bowl with Carolina following the 2003 season.

I asked Peppers a few years after that, if he could change places with any current celebrity for a single day, who would the celebrity be and what day he would pick.

‘It’d probably be Shaq, playing a basketball game, in the NBA Finals,” Peppers said.

‘This perfect specimen’

In basketball, Peppers’ build was similar to current Duke star Zion Williamson. Peppers was a powerful dunker, but he wasn’t as explosive as Williamson and he didn’t have a great outside shot. Football was where Peppers’ future was, and the Panthers made him the No. 2 overall pick of the 2002 NFL draft.

He was an immediate success, with 12 sacks as a rookie that made him the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year (even though he was suspended for four games for taking a banned supplement). He would end up making the Pro Bowl nine times and posting the fourth-most sacks (159.5) since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982. He left Carolina somewhat messily after eight seasons, having grown tired of living in North Carolina his whole life, but was welcomed back with open arms when he returned for his final two.

My favorite number about Peppers? He missed exactly two games because of injury — in 17 years.

“I think God really just built him like this perfect specimen and was like, ‘Here, don’t mess it up,’” backup quarterback Derek Anderson once said of Peppers.

Never won Super Bowl

Peppers wrote in The Players’ Tribune that his next challenge will be parenting his three children — a 10-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 3 and 4.

It wasn’t a perfect career for Peppers. He never won a Super Bowl — that trip with Carolina after the 2003 season was the only one he ever made. Like former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, Peppers played 17 seasons, made one Super Bowl appearance in his second year, lost that one and never got back. Peppers also never was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, either, although he certainly possessed the talent for that.

But it was a pretty awesome career all the same. To play for 17 years, to go out on your own terms, to make more money than any other NFL defensive player in the history of the game ($165 million), to get outside of your comfort zone (he’s a natural introvert) and do some great work this past year in hurricane relief — we will all be applauding Peppers’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

And we should all wish No. 90 the best.

Because — and this will become even more apparent as the years pass — Julius Peppers really was an extraordinary football player.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.